All posts by sophiaserpentia

Rebirth in the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas and several related works such as the Book of Thomas the Contender were the product of a community in Galilee or Syria modern scholars call “the Thomas Christians,” and we can call collectively the body of scripture they wrote “the Thomas scripture.”  They wrote the first draft of the Gospel of Thomas around the same time as Paul wrote his letters, circa 50 CE, a generation or so before the Gospel of Mark was written.

At the time of Jesus, there was a great amount of diversity of belief among the Jewish people, including about the notion of the afterlife.  The Sadducees held to a traditional Jewish view of the afterlife as described in the book of Ecclesiastes 3:19-20: that when a person dies, all of them dies.  The Pharisees added to this the idea that upon the return of the Messiah, the righteous would be resurrected from the dead.

Early Christians, like the Essenes and other apocalyptic sects, adopted the Greek idea of the afterlife.  According to this teaching, each person has an eternal soul.  When a person dies, the soul is guided by a psychopomp to the underworld, where they are judged and sent on to a final destination: a pleasant realm like Elysium for the virtuous, or a fiery realm of punishment like Tartarus for the wicked.

But these were not the only ideas about death and the eternal soul being considered and debated among people of the middle east at that time.  Most of the Gnostic communities, due to the influence of Buddhism, professed some degree of belief in rebirth.  Rebirth is not quite like the more familiar idea of reincarnation.  The idea of reincarnation is that each person has an immortal soul that remains unchanged from incarnation to incarnation.  The idea of rebirth is a bit more nebulous: that some of the energy that makes us up is eternal — the eternal breath, or holy spirit (ruach hakodesh or hagia pneuma) — but that the self, or the part of us that identifies as “I,” is not.  The “I” dies along with the body and the eternal essence is released back into the cosmos.

The Thomas Christians believed this, but they also taught that Jesus made it possible for the “I” to become immortal and persist after death.  This was a privilege granted only to the righteous.  Consider for example Saying 60 of the Gospel of Thomas (I’ve slightly interpolated from the translation here):

He saw a Samaritan carrying a lamb and going to Judea. He said to his disciples, “[Why is that man carrying a lamb?]” They said to him, “So that he may kill it and eat it.” He said to them, “He will not eat it while it is alive, but only after he has killed it and it has become a carcass.”
They said, “Otherwise he can’t do it.”
He said to them, “So also with you, seek for yourselves a place for rest, or you might become a carcass and be eaten.”

Rest, or repose, or stillness, as I noted in my commentary on the Gospel of Truth, is used as a way of depicting the process of achieving gnosis with the divine presence by way of quiet prayer and stillness meditation.

The Gospel of Thomas is very concerned with the distinction between being alive and being a corpse; it comes up so often we might consider it a major theme.  The idea is that if you die without salvation, your identity will fade and your spirit will be reabsorbed into the world, and you won’t have another shot at achieving eternal life for your selfhood until you are a human again, which may take some time.  Consider this excerpt from the Book of Thomas the Contender:

The savior replied, “Listen to what I am going to tell you and believe in the truth. That which sows and that which is sown will dissolve in the fire – within the fire and the water – and they will hide in tombs of darkness. And after a long time they shall show forth [as] fruit of the evil trees, being punished, being slain in the mouth of beasts and men at the instigation of the rains and winds and air and the light that shines above.”

This illuminates the meaning of the stranger sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, such as saying 7:

Jesus said, “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”

There is something of an alchemical understanding of spirit at play here.  Spirit evolves when beings eat others or are themselves eaten.  If a ‘higher’ being eats a ‘lower’ being (with humans being seen as the pinnacle – what else would we expect a human to say?), it transforms the spirit of the eaten from a lower state to a higher state.  If a ‘lower’ being eats a ‘higher’ being, the spirit is still transformed from a lower state to a higher state, but all the sadder for the higher being!  But if spirit is buried in the earth along with a body, it has to start all over again… being absorbed by the roots of trees and showing forth as fruit.  (There must be a metaphorical level of meaning here too, or else why are the trees called evil?)

What goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you. (Thomas 14; also Matthew 15:11, compare Luke 6:45)

According to the Thomas Christians, the person who is able to achieve immortality in their identity will live on and has a chance to escape from the world, which was constructed as a prison for spirit.

Jesus said, “Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy.” (Thomas 56)

What to Do with Scripture When You’re Not a Literalist

In my last post I argued that the evidence is strong that the Gnostics promoted a non-literal interpretation of scripture. They were not alone in this; in fact many theologians throughout history have eschewed strict literalism to one degree or another. For example, Paul’s argument that God’s covenant with Abraham extended now to all of humanity in Romans 4 relied on a metaphorical rather than a literal interpretation of the scripture describing that covenant in Genesis 17.

But what should we do about scripture if we are not going to treat it as being true in only the most literal sense?

That this question is to any degree provocative says a lot about how our culture has gotten caught in a bit of a trap in the way it thinks about religion.  One who professes to believe in the literal truth of scripture is counted as “more religious” than someone who doesn’t, however deep their commitment to cultivating a relationship with the divine presence.  Contrary to this dominant narrative, believing in the literal truth of scripture is not the only way to have a relationship with it, or to be “serious” about one’s religious practice.

I encountered this idea for the first time as an adult.  No one had ever said it to me before then, and it didn’t occur to me on its own.  I attended private religious schools for the first seven years of my schooling, and during that time the one way I was shown to be religious was to believe the literal truth of doctrine.  That didn’t last long without continual reinforcement from the adults around me.  By the time I was 13 I was already developing objections to contradictions and logical flaws and other obvious problems.  As a young adult I explored what I could of other religious traditions, because still to that point I thought the only thing I could do with the doctrine I had been taught as a child was to either accept it fully or to reject it fully.

But then, the path of the skeptic never really appealed either, because I’ve had a string of numinous experiences throughout my life. Perhaps they were just artifacts of my brain, but I’ve never been able to convince myself of that.

It wasn’t until after I was 30 that I began to learn of another way.  It’s not an easier way, because it offers few solid answers.  But I knew from my prior experience that the promise of “certainty” is a shell game when it requires you to dodge from your own mind when you encounter doubts.

Each piece of scripture was written by one or more writers on behalf of a community brought together by a particular experience.  Sometimes they were making a record of an oral tradition; sometimes the piece started out as a written work. Either way, they wrote and maintained it because of some benefit they got from doing so — it articulated their thoughts and bolstered their community.  In some cases, the piece was written because the author or authors had a political agenda or a polemic purpose.  In all of these cases, the intended purpose behind the writing of the text is an excellent place to start.

We don’t have to believe the work true in only it’s literal sense to appreciate or be inspired by the goal towards which they were working.  We can often find resonance with our own experiences therein.

In many cases a text lays out a principle or idea which has since been superseded in some way: an explanation for natural phenomena for which we have since developed a sound scientific explanation, or a principle of ancient justice that would simply not meet the standards of fairness or equality that we have since cultivated in our own society.  In cases like this, we can appreciate that the authors were striving to make the world a better place, sometimes at considerable risk to their own health or lives.

If this makes scripture sound deficient compared to something we might produce today, there is yet another degree of benefit we can get from it.  These texts were important to the people who founded our culture, and gave instruction and inspiration to many generations of their descendants.  To fully understand the roots of our culture, we cannot neglect or ignore scripture. As I wrote before, we do still need a cultural vocabulary to begin to articulate some aspects of religious experience — even if what we do next is to flip that conceptual vocabulary on its head in some way.

The threads that tie a religious community together are shared rituals and prayers — words and events and images that provide familiarity and foster shared identity.  To a great extent, these rituals and prayers and common practices and concepts have their underpinnings in the stories preserved in scripture.

The Gnostic body of scripture is a particular treasure in this regard, because of the great wealth of ideas, prayers, and rituals preserved within.  A wide variety of modern mystical, artistic, and psychological practices are rooted in cultural threads which come to us along a trajectory evidenced in some form in the Gnostic scripture.  Our understanding of these currents is enhanced by examining the ways in which they were recorded therein.

The Gospel of Truth, conclusion: An Instrument of Metanoia

There’s a tension hidden in the metaphors and imagery used in the Gospel of Truth, and it regards the meaning of the metaphor of “error.” Throughout the text, “hylic substance” — matter, in other words — is said to be from a swirling “fog of error” which grew so thick it could take on form. Presumably the people of Valentinus’ time were unaware of how clouds of matter in space slowly condense over time into stars and planets, but the idea is similar. The obvious implication of equating matter with error is that the material universe is an illusion, which is a doctrine classically associated with Gnosticism.

But there’s another way to interpret the Gospel of Truth’s narrative about error, and I lean towards this being the “real” underlying meaning: that error taking on substance is a metaphor for the process by which concepts can get in the way of understanding our experiences, especially mystical experiences which can defy description.

The term “hypostasis” has numerous meanings, but we can use it here to refer to a process that happens within discourse over the course of decades. It starts with one writer or speaker, struggling to come up with a way to describe a particularly profound experience or realization. He or she chooses a term, knowing that it comes up a bit short, but which can be made to accommodate the thought being communicated.  The problem is that religious experience often defies easily being matched with categories or notions or concepts that were designed to describe “things” in the real world and “events” which happen to those “things.” So the community agrees by convention to use, say, the word “wisdom” (sophia) to refer to one aspect of an ineffable experience.

The next generation comes along, and see this word sophia closely associated with something that affected the authors or speakers profoundly. They don’t have the benefit of the actual shared experience which triggered the start of this discourse, a particular circumstance that has now become a part of history. Their experience is of a community that has always used the word sophia to refer to a particular part of their experience. Add to this that the next generation may even have their own, separate sets of ineffable experiences that they choose to associate with this word. But the problem is clear: religious discourse is a giant game of ‘telephone’ played over centuries.

The further in time a religious community is from the initial experience which led them to gather together the particular set of ideas they use to describe what happened to them, the more profoundly the original meaning is lost. In that absence, a new meaning starts to form around the word sophia, and a “goddess,” Sophia, is born. By this time all you have at the center of your religious community is a set of ideas — the pneuma, the spiritual breath that permeated the original experience, is absent.

At the same time, though, the solution is not to sweep away the edifice. That edifice is necessary because it does provide a vocabulary which we might then use to describe our experiences with the divine. Without the edifice it is not possible to reconstruct the steps which led to the initial experience in the first place. We need a shared or cultural atlas of the mind in order to put these experiences into perspective.

The Gnostic program, then, was not to sweep everything off the table, but to make you aware, as much as possible, that religious doctrine is a set of tools. And not just religious doctrine, but philosophy or discourse in general. The key when using it to describe ones experiences of the divine presence is to make them work for you — not to let them control your expectations or box in your mind. And of the errors one can make, where the Gnostics were concerned, one of the deepest is to believe in the literal truth of religious doctrine.

For evidence, consider in itself the reality of the Nag Hammadi library: 13 codices of mostly Gnostic writing from various schools, times, and places. There are at least a dozen different versions of the creation myth among these texts alone. These texts give different names for the aions, different names for the archons. They differ on just about every point of morality or doctrine. They are not the collective product of a community that believed deeply in the literal truth of what they had written. But these texts must have served some purpose, or they would not have been maintained.

Perhaps each text in the library was the product of a different school who believed in the literal truth of its own scripture. Maybe: but this leads to the question of who would have gathered all these various contradictory texts into volumes together?

Perhaps the collector was an opponent of heresy who had collected them in order to refute them. Maybe: but what opponent of heresy would have stolen off into the desert to hide these texts in order to protect them from discovery by the literal-minded Church who intended to destroy them? (Besides, as James Robinson pointed out in the introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library, the scribal margin notes belie the idea that they were collected by an opponent.)

The very existence of the Nag Hammadi library is astounding in this regard. But it is not just the juxtaposition of contradictory scriptures in one library that leads us to the conclusion above: it is the conduct of the Gnostics themselves in their own congregations, as reported by their opponents. Elaine Pagels cited Tertullian’s indignance at the way the Gnostics conducted their ceremonies as an example of the church’s outrage — expressing dismay that they took turns in the role of priest or bishop, while denying that the bishops appointed by the church had any special authority.

It is uncertain who is a catechumen, and who a believer: they all have access equally, they listen equally, they pray equally — even pagans, if any happen to come… They share the kiss of peace with all who come, for they do not care how differently they treat topics…. (Tertullian, quoted in The Gnostic Gospels, p. 42)

We can begin to form an idea of what wisdom was spoken among the initiates in the Valentinian gatherings. Recall in Matthew 13 that when Jesus was alone with the disciples, he gave them an explanation for the meaning of the parable of the sower along with a justification for speaking in parables in the first place: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.'”

The parables in the gospels, and even the many numerous parables in the Gospel of Truth – and there are many – are considered by the Valentinians to be “rehearsal” for the teaching that Christian doctrine itself is a parable.

We begin to understand now the role of the Gospel of Truth. Valentinus sought to develop the spiritual themes he found common to Hellenistic philosophy, Gnosticism as it existed before him, and Christianity, gathering them in a format that would be easily understandable to Christians, but also easily digestible in the light of the revelation that the entire doctrine is a parable. The experience can not be communicated directly; it has to occur as a transformation in the way you view something you have been contemplating. So the Gospel of Truth presents the Christian doctrine in familiar terms, but in a form designed to make it easier to make the leap from believing in it to understanding it as a grand metaphor. The pivot is one’s relationship with the Father.

When someone calls your name, it brings about a sudden change in your conscious state. Valentinus used this as a metaphor for the experience of metanoia:

If one has knowledge, he is from above. If he is called, he hears, he replies, and he turns toward him who called him and he ascends to him and he knows what he is called. Since he has knowledge, he does the will of him who called him. He desires to please him and he finds rest. He receives a certain name. He who thus is going to have knowledge knows whence he came and whither he is going. He knows it as a person who, having become intoxicated, has turned from his drunkenness and having come to himself, has restored what is his own.

The Gospel of Truth, 4: fruits and hidden mysteries

That is the gospel of him whom they seek, which he has revealed to the perfect through the mercies of the Father as the hidden mystery, Jesus the Christ. Through him he enlightened those who were in darkness because of forgetfulness. He enlightened them and gave them a path. And that path is the truth which he taught them. For this reason error was angry with him, so it persecuted him. It was distressed by him, so it made him powerless. He was nailed to a cross. He became a fruit of the knowledge of the Father. He did not, however, destroy them because they ate of it. He rather caused those who ate of it to be joyful because of this discovery.

This paragraph has several oblique references to the writings of Paul. It follows especially closely I Corinthians 2:6-8:

We do speak wisdom (sophia) among the initiates (the mature, teleioi), but not the wisdom of this age or of the archons of this age, who are passing away. But we speak the hidden wisdom (sophia) of God in a mystery, which God ordained before the aions for our glory. None of the archons of this age knew this: had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

This is the translation of the passage given by Elaine Pagels on page 57 of The Gnostic Paul, and I quoted this rather than from a more familiar translation in order to underscore something that may not have been obvious before: Valentinus really was following the words of Paul very closely.

The juxtaposition of the words “hidden,” “mystery” and “teleioi” (“perfect”)are very suggestive, and this brings up a debate which has been going for some time now: over whether or not Paul was the leader of a Hellenistic-style mystery school based on legends he’d heard about Jesus. “Teleioi” was a word used by the members of mystery schools to refer to those who had passed the test (or tests) of ritual initiation and could therefore be trusted to understand a deeper, secret set of teachings.

However, if Paul was not the founder or leader of a mystery school, it’s hard to imagine what else he could have meant.

In fact, what drew the ire of critics like Bishop Irenaeus was not so much the idea of initiation but that the sect of Valentinus sought to undermine the power structure of the church. It was not uncommon for the bishop of a congregation to have been excluded from initiation – creating a situation where lay members of the church claimed to have a deeper, more spiritual understanding of the Christian teaching than their ostensible leaders. There was concern among the bishops that if they allowed this to continue, the Gnostics might undermine the hierarchy of the church.  The Gnostics, for their part, rejected anything that resembled the kind of authority that the archons sought to wield over humanity – seeing everything from the Roman imperial hegemony to the claims of sole authority coming from the organized clergy as reflections of archontic power in human society.  Essentially, the Gnostics were not very good followers. As Kurt Rudolph wrote,

Jewish apocalyptic and esotericism, and the Oriental faith in salvation in the form of mystery religions, also became means of expression of a social protest. Gnosis was without a doubt the most radical voice in this circle. Its rejection of the moral tradition and the visible world of government (including the supernatural) is an attempt to solve the social problems of the time under an unambiguously religious banner… (Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, p. 292).

In the paragraph above, Valentinus conscientiously equated the archons (acting on behalf of “error”) with the worldly authorities who branded Jesus as a criminal and executed him. This blending of worldly and supernatural authorities into a singular image of tyranny was not unique to Valentinus but was common among the Gnostic writings.

The final image here is interesting: Jesus became a “fruit of the knowledge” akin to the fruit Adam and Eve were said to have eaten in the Garden of Eden. But instead of being destroyed by it, those who eat are joyful. This follows upon the example of the Gospel of John and parallels the contrast Paul sought to establish between Adam and Christ in Romans 5. But this has further significance, because later on in the Gospel of Truth we find this: “he who has no root has no fruit either” — building upon the image of the root as I described in my last post, and the ‘organic’ imagery used by the Valentinians to depict the process of emanation from the Father.

This image is also reminiscent of a passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:17-20)

This part of the Sermon on the Mount is typically cited by Christians as a warning against false prophets – among whom they would include the author of the Gospel of Truth.  The Gnostics would say the same right back to their critics, arguing that the “fruits” by which they judged the bishops – who at that point already totally excluded women from the priesthood, just to cite one point of contention – proved their allegiance with the archons rather than with the Father.  See for example chapter 9 of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which depicted through an evocative metaphor the struggles for influence within the early church.  We see therein Peter, representing the church in Rome, vehemently rejecting the witness of Mary after she described a vision from Jesus which disagreed with his beliefs.  Whether or not this scene ‘actually’ played out historically, debates like this, over the participation of women in the clergy, were raging throughout the church.  As they were excluded from participation in the clergy, women found some of the Gnostic movements, such as the Valentinian school, to be more welcoming.

The next post will be my last in this series on the Gospel of Truth, and I’m going to go a bit more “meta” next time.  Previous posts in this series:

salvation like a seed taking root

apokatastasis and stillness

logos and pleroma

The Gospel of Truth, 3: salvation like a seed taking root

Continuing my series of posts on the Gospel of Truth.

For this reason, do not take error too seriously. Thus, since it had no root, it was in a fog as regards the Father, engaged in preparing works and forgetfulnesses and fears in order, by these means, to beguile those of the middle and to make them captive. The forgetfulness of error was not revealed. It did not become light beside the Father. Forgetfulness did not exist with the Father, although it existed because of him. What exists in him is knowledge, which was revealed so that forgetfulness might be destroyed and that they might know the Father, Since forgetfulness existed because they did not know the Father, if they then come to know the Father, from that moment on forgetfulness will cease to exist.

“This reason” to not take error seriously was discussed in the last post: error is nothing but a fog borne of getting caught up into the wrong way of looking at things. A Greek word translated here as “ignorance” is agnosia; though this is the root from which we derive the word ‘agnostic’, it refers to being without (a-) gnosis (gnosia).

There is another similar bit of wordplay going on in the opening of the Gospel of Truth. The word commonly translated as “truth” is aletheia. This word also begins with the prefix a-, added to the root letheia, which means “forgetfulness.” (In Greek mythology, Lethe was the name for a river of Hades, which would cause you to forget everything if you drank of it.) So we have a direct pair of contrasts here:

truth (memory, revelation of what is concealed) vs. forgetfulness (concealing of truth)
gnosis (acquaintance, familiarity, attunement) vs. agnosia (ignorance)

Forgetfulness is a theme that comes up throughout the Gnostic scripture. The underlying notion is that we’ve been made to forget our true nature, and that developing a state of gnosis of the Father is a really a process like remembering something we already knew but had forgotten. See for example the Hymn of the Pearl, which tells a story about a prince sent on a quest, but who has fallen under a spell and forgotten who he was or what he was seeking. Before he can complete his quest, he first has to remember who he is!

“Root” is a term that shows up in the untitled Nag Hammadi text known to scholars as the Valentinian Exposition. There we find several times “Root of the All” as a name for the Father. Recall, the aions, the members of the Pleroma, are always described as having organic origin – as being begotten of another aion. “Root of All” is a very evocative notion, providing a vivid image of things in the cosmos existing as branches of a tree, of which the Father is the root. It also depicts a cosmic order like a tree, of which every part is rooted into the ground. But error, forgetfulness, “had no root.”

Who are “those of the middle”? To answer this we have to consider a threefold distinction between types of nature, hinted at in the writings of Paul and made more explicit in the writings of the Valentinians.

  • The pneumatic, or spiritual, is that which is already in tune with God, and therefore is not in need of guidance. It is on the path to full reconciliation with the Father and therefore to re-enter the Pleroma.
  • The hylic, or material, is that which is fashioned from the fog of error and, being no part of the genuine order, will eventually simply dissolve. It is maya.
  • The middle nature is called psychic. The modern English use of the word ‘psychic’ is a bit off from the original Greek meaning, ‘soul,’ in the sense of that which characterizes what is alive and animate. The psychic nature has the potential to be reconciled with the Father… but it also has the potential to simply dissolve.

Valentinus saw this three-fold distinction reflected in the lives of people around him. Not in the sense of saying that there are three “types” of people; rather, it is a way of thinking about the decisions people make and the actions they take. He was opposed to the very idea of fate or destiny, believing it to be a trick to keep the spirit into remaining intertwined with error. To look at it from the perspective of fate, it is everyone’s “fate” to remain entangled in the fog of error created by the demiurge; that there are not one but two ways to escape from the fog of error is a “hack” provided by the Father and the Logos.  But to take the pathways out of error and liberate oneself from the fate built by error requires conscious choice and deliberate effort. It requires metanoia. It requires rightness of action.

This notion has existed in many forms in Christian teaching; it is not exclusive to the Gnostics. For example, in Eastern Orthodoxy, there is the threefold path of theosis, of becoming like God. This is a path that requires both faith and action, inward change as well as outward change. This is the way by which those who have led a psychic life can still attain reconciliation with the Father. But it contrasts with the Protestant notion that salvation comes by faith alone, which implies that salvation is an “on or off switch,” like a toggle – where you either have it or you don’t.  The Gnostic view teaches that salvation is an ongoing process.

Those whose actions reflect a pneumatic nature do not need as much guidance to achieve or maintain attunement with the Father. They are called upon instead to help provide that guidance to those who need it — “those of the middle,” who are in more danger of making choices that will lead them on a destructive path.

Valentinus goes on to say what will happen to those who accomplish this: “if they then come to know the Father, from that moment on forgetfulness will cease to exist.” To use a metaphor from a later portion of the Gospel of Truth, it is like waking up in the morning. The fearsome foes who menaced you in your dreams do not even fade or retreat; they were never real to begin with.

Earlier posts in this series:

1: on the Logos and the Pleroma

2: apokatastasis and stillness

The Gospel of Truth, 2: apokatastasis and stillness

For the name of the gospel is the manifestation of hope, since that is the discovery of those who seek him, because the All sought him from whom it had come forth. You see, the All had been inside of him, that illimitable, inconceivable one, who is better than every thought.

The teachings of Valentinus draw heavily from the letters of Paul and the Gospel of John. We saw before a passage expanding upon the opening of the Gospel of John, and here is an oblique reference to Colossians 1, especially verses 19-20: “For in him all the fulness (pleroma) of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

This passage, among many written by Paul, refers to the idea of apokatastasisthe restoration or reconciliation of all things with God. This idea may remind us of the Buddhist notion of bodhichitta or the Jewish teaching of tikkun olam.  Valentinus asserts that since all things once dwelt within his mind, and spring forth from it, so all things seek to return there, to the state of balance and equilibrium which is the genuine cosmic order. And indeed, we find that all things in nature seek equilibrium.  As Meister Eckhart was attributed as saying, “There is nothing in creation so like God as stillness.”

There is a deep contrast between this teaching and that which we find among many of the other Gnostic schools of thought – dualism, the idea that the Platonic “Realm of Forms” is the only true nature and material existence is a curse or trap.  A similar flavor of dualism appears in some schools of mainstream Christian thought as well: for example the Calvinistic idea of total depravity.  Valentinus was familiar with both forms of dualism and rejected both.  As we see in the second paragraph quoted below, he argued that the distinction we think appears to divide one kind of nature from another is really just an error of the mind.  When we’ve reconciled to God’s perspective, we the error fades and we see only that all is of one nature.  If all things will ultimately be reconciled with God, there cannot really be, in a ‘deep’ sense, a fundamental divide of any sort in nature: neither of substance nor of essence.

The ineffability of God is also mentioned here. This is a theme common to all schools of Gnosticism, and it turns out to be of great significance. It is not enough just to say that God is beyond comprehension; God is also beyond description. “Ineffable” means “beyond utterance,” and this means that any descriptions or attributions we make in attempting to describe God must fall short. No one utterance can contain the whole truth. The Gnostics kept this in the forefront of their mind and refused to ever invest themselves fully in one scripture or doctrine. Doctrine was not, was never, to be taken fully literally. In their mythopoeic writings, the many variations of the creation story of Genesis which we find throughout the corpus of Gnostic literature, there is a sense that all sacred notions are being deliberately overturned – for example, they cast the serpent as the savior against a dictatorial creator. It was not that they were casually blasphemous, shocking us just for the heck of it. It was that they understood the dictum, as expressed by those of a different (but related) faith tradition – “If you meet the Buddha you must kill him.” We speak of ‘God’ in an attempt to describe our experiences of the divine presence. But our words, our concepts, must never be mistaken for the real thing.

That is one level on which we might understand what Valentinus meant in the next paragraph.

Ignorance of the Father brought about terror and fear. And terror became dense like a fog, that no one was able to see. Because of this, error became strong. But it worked on its hylic substance vainly, because it did not know the truth. It was in a fashioned form while it was preparing, in power and in beauty, the equivalent of truth. This then, was not a humiliation for him, that illimitable, inconceivable one. For they were as nothing, this terror and this forgetfulness and this figure of falsehood, whereas this established truth is unchanging, unperturbed and completely beautiful.

This theme of error being like a fog through which we cannot see is repeated numerous times, in numerous different ways throughout the Gospel of Truth. “Fashioned form” is particularly key here, because it makes clear that Valentinus is talking about the demiurge. In Valentinian myth, we learn of aions, reflections of the divine who live within the Pleroma and who are all begotten, birthed organically one from another or borne of seeds; and they are described so in contrast to the denizens of the material world, who are all fashioned, or created, as if by hand.

Which brings me to the question I asked at the end of my first post. “Error” prevents us from attuning our minds to the genuine cosmic order – because of terror and fear we are caught up into made-up ideas. The word used later in the Gospel of Truth, as throughout the New Testament, to refer to the process of casting off these errors is metanoia – which is mistranslated as “repentance,” but metanoia is not a word with the same moral overtones. It combines the roots meta, which means “above”, and nous, which means “mind,” and means, therefore, to lift your mind above its present state.

The Gospel of Truth, 1

The Gospel of Truth was written circa 150 CE by a member of the Valentinian school of Gnostic Christianity. The author was probably Valentinus himself, though we do not have a direct attribution. Notable for its clear and beautiful prose, it was widely-read throughout the late second century CE and serves as an excellent starting point for an exploration of classical Gnostic Christianity. I will excerpt from the translation by Robert Grant, published in The Nag Hammadi Library and available to read here at the Gnostic Society Library, though I also recommend the translation by Bentley Layton available in The Gnostic Scriptures.

The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos, who has come from the Pleroma and who is in the thought and the mind of the Father; he it is who is called “the Savior,” since that is the name of the work which he must do for the redemption of those who have not known the Father.

When reading a text from the Valentinian school, keep in mind that these authors were fond of looking for ways to express several ideas using the same set of words. They read and wrote scripture according to a technique we might compare to the Jewish approach of pardes – drawing from not just the most direct way of reading the text, but seeking clues that point to mystical or even esoteric ideas.

“The gospel of truth” is not the title of this text, though it is now used as that because the original manuscript did not specify a title. On the most direct level, “the gospel of truth” likely refers to the familiar doctrine of Christianity. But to those reading with a more esoteric frame of mind, this phrase referred more widely to the expression of cosmic truth in any form it may take, of which the Christian gospel was just one form.

“The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos” – the most direct way to read this is as a fairly innocuous Christian statement, invoking the Father as the provider of truth by way of the Logos. But there is also an esoteric reading here. The “gift” given to us by the Logos is “knowing [the Father]” – where “knowing” means gnosis, a mystical experience of affinity or closeness with the Father.

The word Logos (from the Greek word for word) has a rich history that predates Christianity and its use here invokes that fuller meaning. It is probably familiar to most readers for its use in the Gospel of John. It was almost certainly the intention of the author of the Gospel of John to incorporate the earlier, pre-Christian meanings of the word into his message. Originally, “Logos” was a name the Stoic philosophers gave to the cosmic mind they believed was responsible for coalescing all that exists into a natural order. To the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Stoic Logos was clearly an expression of the power by which the Lord created by speaking, as described in Genesis 1. The opening of the Gospel of John, which paralleled the creation story of Genesis 1, casts the Logos in this way: it “was with God, and was God” at the beginning.

But, for Philo, the Logos expresses another idea: a similarity of essence between the human mind and the Lord’s mind of which it is a reflection. In other words, the human mind and the divine mind are made out of the same “stuff.” This notion is key to understanding the Gnostic philosophy and worldview.

Pleroma is a Greek word which means “fullness” and in this context calls to mind the fullness of the divine presence.  For now we can think of it as the original or genuine cosmic order as conceived in the mind of God – the Platonic realm of Forms.  The concept originates in the dialogs of Plato, which were a source of inspiration for Gnostics of the classical period.  For example, in Phaedo, we find this passage, which compares the “true” heaven and earth to the one in which we live, which may contain many beauties but is still “corrupted and corroded” by comparison:

We live in a hollow of the earth and think we live on the surface, and call the air heaven, …[but] if a man could come to the top of it, and get wings and fly up, he could peep over and look, just as fishes here peep up out of the sea… [so] he could learn and know that that is the true heaven and the true light and the true earth.  For this earth and the stones and all the the places here are corrupted and corroded… so that nothing worth mention grows in the sea, and there is nothing perfect there, one might say, but caves and sand and infinite mud and slime wherever there is any earth, things worth nothing at all as compared with the beauties we have; but again those above as compared with ours would seem to be much superior.  (Phaedo, translated by W. H. D. Rouse, in Great Dialogues of Plato, p. 314)

Thus “the power of the Logos” is not merely the message and acts of Jesus Christ, but all the ways by which we come to gnosis – to a closer awareness of the divine presence. And so the esoteric meaning of this first sentence is that truth, or expression rooted in the genuine cosmic order – in the Pleroma – originates from the Father’s mind and was expressed during the act of creation by speaking words. And, since our minds are akin to the Father’s mind, we can through this affinity become attuned to the Father.

But – if our minds should be by nature ‘attuned’ to the divine wavelength, why aren’t they? I’ll explore this question more deeply in my next post.

Welcome to The Serpent’s Wisdom!

The Serpent’s Wisdom will be my ongoing attempt to distill over a decade’s worth of study and investigation into, and meditation upon, the legacy of Gnosticism as it has existed from antiquity to the present day. I hope you will find it inspiring, or at least informative.

“Gnosticism” sounds like a narrow topic, and the term may bring to mind scholars reading dusty scrolls full of arcane scribblings and philosophical dead-ends. What we find, however, is a surprisingly relevant and living current which has cast a wide influence over the Western tradition. When I refer to the “Gnostic current,” I refer to a strain of influence, a trajectory of ideas or practices, a persistent Weltanschauung, of which we can find traces in numerous traditions and undertakings. Most of my attention will be given to “classical” Gnosticism — the collection of teachings offered by a number of heterodox Jewish, Jewish-Christian, and Christian sects starting in 100 BCE and extending to 350 CE. But do not be surprised if I touch on topics as wide-ranging as Kabbalah, alchemy, Catharism, the writings of Meister Eckhart or William Blake, Theosophy, or Jungian psychology.

This is the third incarnation of the Serpent’s Wisdom project. It existed initially as my LiveJournal, which I began writing in 2002 and have kept to the present day (though it is mostly dormant these days). The second undertaking under the name of the Serpent’s Wisdom was a podcast which I developed and published at this domain in the summer and fall of 2011. I had some time on my hands as I had recently moved, had not yet returned to full-time work, and was taking a hiatus from school. In the spring of 2012 I returned to school to finish my master’s degree and had to set aside the podcasting project for lack of time or energy. But it is time to resume working on this project. I will post entries here at least twice a week; I’m aiming for Sundays and Thursdays.